I believe in the humanity of human beings. I was born in a Catholic family, which is actually quite unusual for India, it is a very very small percentage. When I was in medical school around 19, I had my first confrontation with the church, with the local priest. Something happened, and I was extremely angry with him, and that’s when I started questioning church as an institution. And I decided I didn’t want to go to church. So that caused a lot of conflict and heartache within my family. But I think that’s when it started: slowly I moved away from a very clear religious belief in the church.
A major shift in my life came about when I was doing post-graduation. I dropped out to work in a village. It was unthinkable for my family, particularly because my parents were not well-off, so for my father who came from a village it was a mystery to him why I would want to go back to a life of poverty. The first time I experienced people going to sleep without food, it was very deeply traumatic. So I started questioning things, I moved away from medicine because I felt that modern medicine did not have answers, and I went into public health, political economy, always questioning the larger issues of health. I’ve been with various campaigns in India, one was the Bhopal disaster. I worked with the people who were affected. And you know when you’re opposing the state, and the medical establishment, it leads to politicization. It causes shifts in your own belief – do you believe in the state? Do you believe in the goodness of human beings? Do you believe that justice will prevail?
The next shift came in 1992, after we had just lost the Bhopal case. I had been a medical researcher and an intervener in the court case. And we lost because of pure politics. So I went into deep turmoil, experiencing a sense of total powerlessness. Around that time a friend of mine who was a practitioner of Vipassana thought it would help me. So I went to do the Vipassana meditation for ten days, and I got hooked. It was really a mind-blowing experience. Both as a scientist, and as someone who is looking for spirituality. So if I’m drawn to any religious belief, I would say Buddhism not because of the worship of Buddha as god, I’m not into that, but the Buddhist philosophy. And I’m also not so much into the idea of nonviolence in terms of eating food, being vegetarian becomes the only symbol of nonviolence but for me nonviolence would be how one interacts with the other, with the whole ecology.
The technique of Vipassana meditation created a certain situation in my body, which was very fascinating. I did it twice, the second time I did it, I felt like I was on a crossroads. I had a choice in front of me: either choose a spiritual life, or go into the material world. And I made a very clear choice to go into the material world, because I felt, ‘I am not ready for the spiritual life right now’. But it was such a clear moment in my life. And subsequently, I tried to go again for a Vipassana meditation, but it didn’t work. It was almost like the universe telling me, ‘you said no, so you wait until you’re ready’. And I’m still not ready. I still feel I have certain things that need to be done. The thing is, the material world doesn’t actually have much hold on me, because I gave up the whole notion of private property a long time ago. I have very little in terms of possessions. It’s not that I live an ascetic life, but I’ve lived a very minimal kind of life, just basic needs. I’m quite happy with it. But when I talk about the material world, I mean engagement with issues, I feel like I have some things to say which are very important, and I have said certain things which I think are really critical in my field. And it’s not because of want of name and fame. But I feel there is a task I need to fulfil. That’s what motivates me.
I am fascinated by the hold religious faith has on people. I cannot fathom it. I’m not talking about spirituality. I think you can be deeply spiritual, which I think I am, without subscribing to any religion, or thinking x is god, and y is not a god.
During my ethnography in the village, people worshipped so many gods. I could see the power that each of these gods have in the lives of people. In that kind of context, when people are very poor, and they have no power over their lives, then giving power to an entity becomes very important to them to live an everyday life of utter helplessness. Again, I make the distinction between religion and spirituality, because the question, ‘who am I’, ‘where do I come from’, almost everyone asks those questions at some point in their lives. Another question is: Why this human body? What is the purpose of this human body? Why could we not just be spirits floating around? Of course each religion has its own explanation, but I haven’t found the explanation. So for me, it’s all bits and pieces, and I hope, one day, it will come together or may be not.
There are two things, looking back on my scientific life that really blew my mind. One was when I learned in school about atoms. And that everything was made of atoms. And that everything was spinning around, and everything is hollow. It still blows my mind! The second thing that blows my mind is that we are one little planet in this entire universe. Two weeks ago, there was a lunar eclipse and I saw it until the moon turned orange. And when you look at the eclipse you see the moon, the earth, and the sun right at the other end. And you’re all floating around! It’s a totally mind-blowing thing for me. I always think, if I hadn’t discovered the politics of poverty, I would have liked to have gone into natural science. Poverty screwed up my life! [laughing]
I always felt envious of people who have faith. Because I think, faith solves a lot of problems. So this loss of faith is a big hole, because I don’t believe in science either. What is science? There is all this questioning, particularly in social science – what is knowledge? What is truth? It’s like quicksand. If you have faith, it’s fantastic. Otherwise it’s an existential crisis one has to meet all the time. Like the question of mortality. Yet I have not been able to shift to a faith just because I am so frightened. The fear of the unknown is not strong enough.
I would like to believe in the humaneness of people. But that’s also very difficult. To love someone, who you really don’t love, that’s a big thing. I’ve been struggling with the concept of forgiveness. That was the crisis in 2002 – I felt my world was falling apart because I could no longer trust the people I had most trusted. They must have their own stories, but this is my story. So forgiveness is a big challenge, even today. This month, my laptop was stolen. I live in a monastery, and lots of people come and go. But I couldn’t find it in my heart to be angry with this person. Because I felt, whoever took it is so marginalized, that this person has lost all concept of morality of a particular kind, of private property. So I couldn’t be angry. I just wish I had some advanced notice to copy some files! I was quite surprised at myself, but I think it’s a friend’s betrayal that is harder. It’s a kind of detachment I haven’t learnt. Because trust is also what connects you to people. I would really like to reach a state where my trust is not dependent on whether it’s reciprocated. That’s my aspiration.